Enterprising Students Repurpose Heat From Laptops

Remote learning is overheating devices. Stuyvesant students are putting that heat to work.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has thoroughly altered almost every aspect of our education system. Remote learning, which has been ongoing at Stuyvesant since mid-March, appears set to continue for the foreseeable future. Teenagers’ screen time, once fairly limited, has skyrocketed during the pandemic. For the most part, students have adjusted. The computers? Not so much.

A study conducted by researchers at Stuyvesant found that much widely-used educational software, including Google Meet, LockDown Browser, and Edpuzzle, causes devices to overheat and reach temperatures far above their normal levels. When different programs run at the same time, the problem is exacerbated. In one case, a student trying to finish all of his missing work before the end of the semester ran Google Meet with the camera enabled, filled out a 100-question JunoPod, and watched a half-hour long video on Edpuzzle, all at the same time. The laptop in question reached temperatures upward of 150 degrees Fahrenheit, giving its owner—freshman Arthur Wu—second-degree thigh burns.

“Sometimes I need to put ice on my lap from doing schoolwork for an hour,” Wu said. “It burns, man.”

According to medical experts, consistent lap heat exposure is a serious health concern, and the response from the Stuyvesant community reflects that reality. Multiple petitions calling for bans on various programs gained significant traction in the “Dear Incoming Stuyvesant” groups on Facebook, including a petition titled “Ban Meets Before My [redacted] Overheats.” As petitions and pleas to the administration await an official response, students have begun to repurpose the excess heat in a variety of creative ways.

Many students began incorporating this newfound heat source into various hobbies that they have picked up during quarantine. In Wu’s case, that hobby is cooking. Over the summer, Wu mastered a variety of dishes including pancakes, crepes, soufflés, and curries.

“I wouldn’t say mastered,” his father interjected. “Everything he makes is saltier than the Dead Sea, but not as salty as his attitude.”

One day, during a particularly arduous biology period, Wu saw an opportunity staring right at him. “It was a total lightbulb moment—something just clicked. While the teacher was going on about cellular recitation or something, I decided, to hell with it. I’m making lunch.” According to Wu, he put on some nearby oven mitts and gingerly carried the laptop—which at the time was running Peardeck, 11 Chrome tabs, and a Zoom meeting with 35 participants—to the kitchen counter.

“I did have a moment of hesitation,” Wu recalled. “I thought, ‘what if it isn’t hot enough?’ So I put my finger near the screen to check, and I could feel the heat radiating from the device.” As it turned out, online instruction was more than enough to heat Wu’s laptop to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature required to safely cook an egg. Wu cracked the eggs over his open laptop and fried them next to the trackpad. According to Wu, the experiment was a runaway success. “The eggs came out crispy and a little burnt, but I thought it went really well. The color was a little off-putting—I’d never eaten black eggs before—but once I got past that and took a bite, they were the best damn eggs I’ve ever had.” After being asked to elaborate on the taste, he kissed his fingers like an Italian chef and responded, “Exquisite. They were definitely crunchy, almost like tortilla chips, but eggy. I would say it was reminiscent of brittle cardboard with a hint of melted keyboard gunk. I would absolutely recommend trying it. Ten out of 10.”

Junior Ellen French found another way to make use of the excess heat radiating from her shuddering PC. Starting in October of her junior year, French began to join as many extracurriculars as she could in order to improve her college prospects. From studying for the Biology Olympiad, leading the crochet club, and attempting to virtually play ultimate frisbee, to discussing student issues in the Junior Caucus cabinet, French was attending so many meetings with so little cooldown time in between that a worrying smell of burning plastic emerged from her desktop whenever she opened Zoom. In addition, her maze of Barron’s and SAT prep books blocked her computer fans from expelling heat properly.

This worried French deeply. “I was thinking, what am I gonna do?” she remembered. “I mean, I love going to my clubs, I really do, but I won’t be able to even turn my computer on if I continue like this.”

Then, winter came. “I really wasn’t expecting it, but it was so friggin’ cold. I had to double, triple up on my crocheted tops, but it was no use. My fingers were numb from the temperature and from typing hours on end. I really didn’t think I could crochet myself any more crop tops or bucket hats. Then I remembered my heating problem.” It was then that French had the bright idea to use the fans from her desktop tower as a DIY space heater. To get to them, she dedicated a day to clearing out all of the clutter, organizing her bedroom in the process. “In hindsight,” French said, “having all those paper books near the hot computer was probably a fire hazard.” After hours of cleaning, she ducked under the desks, turned the tower so the fans faced her, and felt the warm whoosh of the fans. “Ahh,” French sighed over the call. “It was euphoric.”

French had to adjust the tower and cut back on the hot air so her face would not burn, but her old, crusty, and fairly unstable desktop was remodeled into a trusty, super-powerful heater. “It’s like summer in here. You wouldn’t believe it.” While being interviewed, she wore a tank top with a high bun and fanned herself with what appeared to be her math homework folded into a paper fan. “I did some stuff to redirect the air to the top of my desk using some tubing. I’m so glad it worked. I mean, it’s freezing out there,” she cheerfully commented. She warned those who wished to try it at home to make sure to remain hydrated after setting it up to avoid heatstroke.

While cooking and heating are fairly harmless uses, others have repurposed the heat from their overworked computers in more devious ways. A senior, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Spectator that she had been using the heat from her tablet as a safeguard against interloping siblings. By running dozens of applications simultaneously, she heated her iPad to unsafe temperatures, ensuring that anyone trying to use it would need protective gloves, the only pair of which she kept hidden under her bed.

“My sister—she’s a freshman this year—is taking the same Spanish class I took my freshman year and she keeps asking me to pass homework answers. I told her no, but she still tried to snoop around my room. Whining to our parents didn’t work, so I decided to teach her a lesson.” According to the anonymous senior, she pretended to be on the phone when her sister was nearby and mentioned offhand that every single classwork, homework, and project she did for Spanish I was on her iPad. To make the trap even more enticing, she thanked the person on the phone for sending the answers to the final exam to the tablet. Then, picking up the tablet, she opened every single school-related app, as well as Fruit Ninja, and left the iPad running. Finally, she placed the tablet on her pillow and left the room.

As soon as she stepped through the door, she heard a scream. “Apparently, my sister is as much of a snake as I expected. She actually snuck into my room and tried to break into my tablet. She’s a dum-dum, and she paid the price for it.” Her sister suffered serious burns to her fingertips. In retrospect, the senior feels guilty. “I didn’t know that the iPad could get that hot. I mean, I only wear those gloves as a precaution. But the way her fingers look—my god, it’s like she stuck them in a toaster.”

The senior urged readers to regard her story as a cautionary tale. “Don’t take people’s stuff. Be academically responsible.” Finally, the senior noted, “Passcodes are fine, but humans are vulnerable. And humans are also stupid. Heat and a passcode are where it’s at.”

While some Stuyvesant students have used their searing gadgets to their own advantage, the dangers are significant, prompting medical experts—and members of the Stuyvesant administration—to urge students not to try and harness the heat. Principal Seung Yu, speaking to an audience of Stuyvesant students and parents at the behest of the Student Union, told those watching that taking advantage of their computers’ high temperatures is never worth it. “I mean, seriously,” he continued. “Never. Not even if you think it would be really cool to set up a jacuzzi in your backyard and heat it with your Chromebook. It will inevitably go bad. You will try and get into the jacuzzi and it’ll be so hot that your little toesies will never feel the same again. Why are you asking if I know from experience? I’ve never done this. I am speaking in hypotheticals. Obviously.”

Yu also encouraged students to create their own “boiling device evacuation kit,” recommending that they include a fire extinguisher, a manual on how to hard reset their device, a gas mask to deal with the fumes of burning rubber, and a protective suit that can withstand 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. All of these, however, are only temporary solutions, and students and administrators alike hope that teachers remain mindful of the risks when asking students to overextend their devices. “We ask that teachers keep in mind,” Yu said, “that they will have to financially compensate for any fire damage done to student property by the technological demands of their coursework.”